cat using litter tray

Toileting Behaviour in Cats

cat using litter trayHouse soiling in cats tends to be the problem behaviour most commonly seen by behaviourists who work with cats.  A good understanding of normal feline elimination behaviour plus an idea of how best to meet a cat’s toileting needs can help to avoid toileting issues.  As you can imagine, cats urinate and defecate to eliminate waste products.  Most cats will squat urinate two or three times a day and defecate once (but will vary based on water intake, diet etc.).

The area in which a cat lives can be described as being made up of a core territory, a peripheral territory and a home range.  A domestic cat’s core area is usually inside the home.  This is the area where they relax, rest, sleep, eat and play.  A domestic cat’s peripheral territory (if the cat has access outside) is usually the cat’s garden, yard, or other immediate surroundings.  This is the part of a cat’s territory where they would typically toilet and would have various locations within this area for that purpose.

Cats are likely to feel vulnerable when they’re toileting and so will seek out locations that are quiet, private and feel secure so they can engage in the behaviour in relative safety.  When urinating, a cat will usually perform five different behaviours in a sequence (but not all behaviours will be displayed by all cats).

  • A cat will firstly sniff the substrate (i.e. litter in the litter tray/box, soil outside in the garden etc.) to be urinated in.
  • The cat will then scrape or dig around in the substrate to make a hole (using one or both forepaws).
  • The cat will then squat (with a relatively straight back) over the hole and urinate before turning round to smell the voided urine.
  • The cat will then try to bury the urine by scraping the substrate over the area.
  • Cats will often switch between scraping and sniffing.

When defecating, a cat will typically go through the same process (but with a more rounded back when squatting) and may or may not cover their faeces afterwards.  Cats have been observed to sometimes leave faeces uncovered initially and then return to cover it later.

Some cats with lower urinary tract infections or other conditions such as arthritis may experience pain if they squat and so may urine in a standing position as a result.

litter trayLitter tray facilities provided in the home should be attractive and desirable (from a feline perspective) and also accessible.   Facilities that are too public, dirty, smelly or inaccessible are likely to be rejected resulting in a cat finding an alternative location to toilet (which could be inside the home).

Although it’s worth remembering that there are individual differences in terms of what cats prefer, the following litter tray ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ are worth considering to help you provide facilities that are most likely to be desirable to your cat(s).


  • Provide a fine-grained, easy to rake, soft, unscented litter (which most cats seem to prefer).
  • Provide litter to a depth of about 3cms (but some cats may prefer more or less) to allow for scraping, digging and burying.
  • Scoop trays at least twice a day (or more often if needed to keep it clean and odour free).
  • Replace litter completely every other day (or more often if needed – particularly if used by more than one cat).
  • Wash trays with hot water and a mild detergent or cat safe tray cleaning products, rinse and dry well.
  • Replace trays each year to avoid the absorption and retention of odour.
  • Provide more than one tray (in single cat households) as cats often prefer to urinate and defecate in different trays.
  • Provide multiple trays in different locations in multi-cat households (using the general rule of one tray per cat plus one) to ensure one cat can’t block other cats’ access.
  • Position trays in quiet, private but accessible locations.
  • Position trays in areas so the cat only has to look in one or two directions whilst toileting (rather than the tray being in a very open space).
  • Position trays away from food and water (as cats prefer to toilet away from these key resources).
  • Ensure easy access in and out of trays.
  • Ensure trays are big enough (at least one and half times the length of the cat), deep and stable.
  • Consider the needs of older cats, cats with arthritis, cats that are unwell or kittens that might find it easier to get in and out of a shallower tray, or would benefit from one that’s not too far away so they can gain access to it quickly if needed (e.g. young kittens with less bladder control).
  • Take care if providing covered trays as odours can build up inside them; some cats find them restrictive; the entrance can easily be blocked accidentally; they can be problematic in multi-cat households as one cat may ‘ambush’ another exiting the tray.
  • Provide a tray indoors (even if your cat usually toilets outside) for use in emergencies (e.g. if your cat becomes unwell, their access outside is blocked by a neighbour’s cat etc.).
  • Consider providing outdoor ‘latrines’ in the cat’s ‘peripheral’ territory (e.g. a regularly dug over part of a flower bed mixed with good quality sand) as this is likely to be welcomed by your cat and may help to reduce toileting in neighbours’ gardens.
  • Make any necessary changes to tray arrangements gradually (e.g. if changing the type of litter, moving the tray to a different location etc.).
  • Check out your cat’s toileting for signs that your cat may not be well (e.g. diarrhoea).


  • Avoid scented, pine, wood-pulp, pellet or shaving based litters as cats can find them unpleasant.
  • Avoid unpleasant deodorisers and plastic liners (which can get caught on claws and interfere with the cat’s ability to scrape and dig).
  • Avoid the use of disinfectants that turn cloudy in water as they typically contain phenols (which are toxic to cats) or anything strong smelling to wash trays.
  • Avoid putting trays in busy, high traffic areas in the home.
  • Avoid putting trays in locations accessible by other pets (particularly dogs) or children.
  • Avoid putting trays near noisy household appliances (e.g. washing machines, dryers) or underneath stairs (which may creak or be noisy when walked on).
  • Avoid putting trays where they can be seen from outside by neighbouring cats (e.g. by patio doors, cat flaps, in conservatories etc.) as this is likely to intimidate most cats.
  • Avoid touching, trapping or cornering your cat whilst in the tray (e.g. to give them medication, flea treatment etc.) as this is likely to create an aversion to the tray which then won’t be used.

This article is written by Vital Pet Health behaviour expert Sue Hartley

Sue Hartley BSc MSc CPsychol

sue hartley profileSue’s background is in the psychology of human and companion animal behaviour with particular interest in problem behaviour in cats and dogs. She has had more than 15 years experience of animal care, welfare, behaviour and training in domestic, voluntary and science settings. She is a chartered member of the British Psychological Society and a member of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour and the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors.

Sue’s pet behaviour business Life on Paws helps pet owners in Harrogate and Yorkshire to understand, manage and change their pet’s problem behaviour through a range of pet behaviour services including behaviour consultations, workshops and home visits. She works mainly with cats and dogs but also other species too (e.g. rabbits). She adheres to the Code of Practice ( of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, and is covered by professional indemnity insurance, is Criminal Records Bureau checked and Home Office national security cleared.

For more details visit Sue’s website at

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